The Grafenegg Festival: A programme as eclectic as its quirky castle venue

Alexandra Coghlan takes a trip to Austria to sample the delights of this year's Grafenegg Festival, curated by the pianist Rudolf Buchbinder.

The Grafenegg Festival
16 August - 8 September 2013

England might have given the classical world country house opera, opening up the gardens and gazebos of our finest stately homes to picnicking music-lovers each summer, but Austria has gone one better. The Grafenegg Festival, taking place annually in the beautiful Danube valley of Wachau, raises an important question: why content yourself with a country house when you could have a castle instead?

And what a castle it is. Schloss Grafenegg’s origins may be sixteenth-century, but it was the nineteenth-century that transformed it into what it is today – an architectural Tardis. August Ferdinand, Earl Breuner-Eneckevoirth, had a vision for a home not bounded by period of style but embracing all in a historical riot of crenellation, castellation and wood-panelling. From neo-renaissanance to Biedermeier it’s all here, in a Gothic fantasy come to life. The castle itself is at the centre of the Grafenegg estate which has been home to the festival since 2007. As audiences have grown so has the festival, building the futuristic outdoor amphitheatre the Wolkenturm (“Cloud-Tower”), a new indoor auditorium, and converting the original stables into yet another concert-hall.

And the music has grown at the same pace. Curated by Rudolf Buchbinder, Austria’s finest pianist, this year’s festival artists include the Vienna Philharmonic, Valery Gergiev, Charles Dutoit, Diana Damrau, Anne-Sophie Mutter, Janine Jansen, Semyon Bychkov and the Labeque sisters. It’s an impressive line-up by anyone’s standards, and discovered in this quiet, storybook-fantasy of a valley in Lower Austria it has the additional appeal of context. Vienna and Salzburg may have their cultural treasures, but they also have crowds and tourists. Grafenegg, by contrast, is a peaceful kingdom indeed.

Part of the festival’s appeal is the variety of its programme, reflecting the eclectic interests of the castle’s original founder in the breadth of the programming. In one weekend we went from the epic spectacle of Mahler’s Third Symphony, to the irreverent virtuosity of the 12 Cellos of the Berlin Philharmonic (programming Burt Bacharach alongside Purcell) and a perfectly-formed chamber recital juxtaposing the familiar and the unknown.

The Mahler, framed in the dramatic lines of the Wolkenturm, was a chance to hear both Grafenegg’s resident festival orchestra – Vienna’s Tonkünstler Orchestra – and exciting young Colombian conductor Andrés Orozco-Estrada, who will be making his debut with the LSO next season. The Tonkünstler have grown tremendously in recent years, finally stepping out of the shadow of their Viennese orchestral competition. Performing this symphony was a major milestone in their development. Aided by the Vienna Boys Choir and the women of the Wiener Singverein they conjured a vivid vision of the composer’s bucolic rhapsody.

The strings in particular brought a warmth and connectedness to their playing that was striking in an outdoor acoustic, and if woodwind couldn’t quite match them for unanimity they did yield some strong soloists, particularly the off-stage post-horn who more than met the demands of the third movement. Mezzo soloist Elisabeth Kulman was perhaps an unusual choice for Mahler, favouring an unusually straight tone, but it projected beautifully in the space and the clarity helped throw focus back to the all-important texts.

From a Mahlerian symphony orchestra we downsized the next night to just a cello section. The 12 cellists of the Berlin Philharmonic have been playing as an ensemble in their own right for over 40 years and have the showmanship to prove it. More than just a novelty act, their combination of lighthearted humour and virtuosity makes them the King’s Singers of the instrumental world, capable of playing any amount of Burt Bacharach without becoming cheap. The ensemble have commissioned throughout their history, creating a huge catalogue of works for the current group to draw on. Here, we saw them add another to their collection in the form of Brett Dean’s 12 Angry Men. Grafenegg’s 2013 composer in residence drew heavily on the Sidney Lumet film for a work which sets up a narrative framework for an exercise in musical structure and development. Each assigned a character, the cellists are heard to persuade, argue, agree and interact in phrases charged with rhetorical intent. Dean’s writing prevents his concept becoming too literal, and the densely contrapuntal result is one that begs for an immediate second-hearing.

It’s rare that we get to hear a single instrument used in so many different ways, but by limiting themselves to just cellos this ensemble are forced to explore the limits of conventional textures and techniques. An arrangement of Ravel’s Pavane pour une Infante defunte drew on gauzy harmonics to mimic (or even outdo) the delicacy of the original, while Boris Blacher’s Blues, Espagnola und Rumba Philharmonica transformed the players into a single strumming guitar, pulsing with percussive energy. But it was Juan Tizol’s reworking of Duke Ellington’s Caravan that demanded most of the players, drawing an uncanny impression of vocal or trumpet scatting from the strings.

For pure musical pleasure however it was the simplest, smallest concert of the festival that prevailed. Combining the young British Doric Quartet with Brett Dean (seen here both as composer and violist), it paired Dean’s own Epitaphs with Brahms’ Quintet No. 2 in G major. Dean’s melodic language is inscrutable, demanding rather than desiring multiple listens, but as miniature soundscapes his Epitaphs offer plenty to a first-time audience. The other-worldly ostinato of the opening, the fractious counterpoint for all five instruments in II, the shifting clouds of harmonic colour in V, all lingered in the ears as sonic fragments.

The Doric have a technical assurance that leaves them completely free to shape the intent of their music, and the Brahms – thick with the addition of the extra viola – offered us the chance to hear their musical ideas as well as see their considerable skill. Theirs is an ardent, engaged sound well-suited to this repertoire, but they also proved themselves capable of finding more restraint for the Adagio. Gradually thawing out during the Allegretto, they grew to a pacy climax in the Vivace, bounding to the finish-line.

In Grafenegg, Buchbinder has created a festival as eclectic as the castle venue itself. You might be confronted or horrified by your encounters here (whether architectural or musical) but you won’t be indifferent. Austria may be a by-word for musical conservatism, but there’s nothing middle-of-the-road about this quirky, endearing festival. 

Schloss Grafenegg, the sixteenth century castle which hosts the festival.
GETTY
Show Hide image

Celluloid Dreams: are film scores the next area of serious musical scholarship?

John Wilson has little time for people who don't see the genius at work in so-called "light music".

When John Wilson walks out on to the stage at the Royal Albert Hall in London, there is a roar from the audience that would be more fitting in a football stadium. Before he even steps on to the conductor’s podium, people whistle and cheer, thumping and clapping. The members of his orchestra grin as he turns to acknowledge the applause. Many soloists reaching the end of a triumphant concerto performance receive less ecstatic praise. Even if you had never heard of Wilson before, the rock-star reception would tip you off that you were about to hear something special.

There is a moment of silence as Wilson holds the whole hall, audience and orchestra alike, in stasis, his baton raised expectantly. Then it slices down and the orchestra bursts into a tightly controlled mass of sound, complete with swirling strings and blowsy brass. You are instantly transported: this is the music to which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced, the music of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, which reverberated around the cauldron of creativity that was Hollywood of the early 20th century, when composers were as sought after as film directors.

Wilson’s shows are tremendously popular. Since he presented the MGM musicals programme at the Proms in 2009, which was watched by 3.5 million people on TV and is still selling on DVD, his concerts have been among the first to sell out in every Proms season. There are international tours and popular CDs, too. But a great deal of behind-the-scenes work goes into bringing this music – much of which had been lost to history – back to life. There are familiar tunes among the complex arrangements that he and his orchestra play, to be sure, but the music sounds fresher and sharper than it ever does on old records or in movies. Whether you’re a film fan or not, you will find something about the irrepressible energy of these tunes that lifts the spirits.

Sitting in an armchair in the conductor’s room beneath the Henry Wood Hall in south London, Wilson looks anything but energetic. “Excuse my yawning, but I’ve been up since three o’clock this morning,” he says. This is a short break in a hectic rehearsal schedule, as he puts his orchestra through its paces in the lead-up to its appearance at the 2016 Proms. Watching him at work before we sat down to talk, I saw a conductor who was far from sluggish. Bobbing on the balls of his feet, he pushed his players to consider every detail of their sound, often stopping the musicians to adjust the tone of a single note or phrase. At times, his whole body was tense with the effort of communicating the tone he required.

The programme that Wilson and his orchestra are obsessing over at the moment is a celebration of George and Ira Gershwin, the American songwriting partnership that produced such immortal songs as “I Got Rhythm”, “’S Wonderful” and “Funny Face”, as well as the 1934 opera Porgy and Bess. Though it might all sound effortless when everyone finally appears in white tie, huge amounts of preparation go into a John Wilson concert and they start long before the orchestra begins to rehearse.

“Coming up with the idea is the first step,” he says. “Then you put a programme together, which takes a great deal of time and thought and revision. You can go through 40 drafts until you get it right. I was still fiddling with the running order two weeks ago. It’s like a three-dimensional game of chess – one thing changes and the whole lot comes down.”

Wilson, 44, who also conducts the more conventional classical repertoire, says that his interest in so-called light music came early on. “When you’re a kid, you don’t know that you shouldn’t like the Beatles, or you shouldn’t like Fred Astaire, or whatever,” he says. “You just like anything that’s good. So I grew up loving Beethoven and Brahms and Ravel and Frank Sinatra and the Beatles.” At home in Gateshead – he still has the Geordie accent – the only music in the house was “what was on the radio and telly”, and the young boy acquired his taste from what he encountered playing with local brass bands and amateur orchestras.

He had the opposite of the hothoused, pressured childhood that we often associate with professional musicians. “Mine were just nice, lovely, normal parents! As long as I wore clean underwear and finished my tea, then they were happy,” he recalls. “I was never forced into doing music. My parents used to have to sometimes say, ‘Look, you’ve played the piano enough today; go out and get some fresh air’ – things like that.” Indeed, he received barely any formal musical education until he went to the Royal College of Music at the age of 18, after doing his A-levels at Newcastle College.

The title of the concert he conducted at this year’s Proms was “George and Ira Gershwin Rediscovered”, which hints at the full scale of Wilson’s work. Not only does he select his music from the surviving repertoire of 20th-century Hollywood: in many cases, he unearths scores that weren’t considered worth keeping at the time and resurrects the music into a playable state. At times, there is no written trace at all and he must reconstruct a score by ear from a ­recording or the soundtrack of a film.

For most other musicians, even experts, it would be an impossible task. Wilson smiles ruefully when I ask how he goes about it. “There are 18 pieces in this concert. Only six of them exist in full scores. So you track down whatever materials survive, whether they be piano or conductors’ scores or recordings, and then my colleagues and I – there are four of us – sit down with the scores.” There is no hard and fast rule for how to do this kind of reconstruction, he says, as it depends entirely on what there is left to work with. “It’s like putting together a jigsaw, or a kind of archaeology. You find whatever bits you can get your hands on. But the recording is always the final word: that’s the ur-text. That is what you aim to replicate, because that represents the composer’s and lyricist’s final thoughts.” There is a purpose to all this effort that goes beyond putting on a great show, though that is a big part of why Wilson does it. “I just want everyone to leave with the thrill of having experienced the sound of a live orchestra,” he says earnestly. “I tell the orchestra, ‘Never lose sight of the fact that people have bought tickets, left the house, got on the bus/Tube, come to the concert. Give them their money’s worth. Play every last quaver with your lifeblood.’”

Besides holding to a commitment to entertain, Wilson believes there is an academic justification for the music. “These composers were working with expert ­arrangers, players and singers . . . It’s a wonderful period of music. I think it’s the next major area of serious musical scholarship.”

These compositions sit in a strange, in-between place. Classical purists deride them as “light” and thus not worthy of attention, while jazz diehards find the catchy syncopations tame and conventional. But he has little time for anyone who doesn’t recognise the genius at work here. “They’re art songs, is what they are. The songs of Gershwin and Porter and [Jerome] Kern are as important to their period as the songs of Schubert . . . People who are sniffy about this material don’t really know it, as far as I’m concerned, because I’ve never met a musician of any worth who’s sniffy about this.

Selecting the right performers is another way in which Wilson ensures that his rediscovered scores will get the best possible presentation. He formed the John Wilson Orchestra in 1994, while he was still studying at the Royal College of Music, with the intention of imitating the old Hollywood studio orchestras that originally performed this repertoire. Many of the players he works with are stars of other European orchestras – in a sense, it is a supergroup. The ensemble looks a bit like a symphony orchestra with a big band nestled in the middle – saxophones next to French horns and a drum kit in the centre. The right string sound, in particular, is essential.

At the rehearsal for the Gershwin programme, I heard Wilson describing to the first violins exactly what he wanted: “Give me the hottest sound you’ve made since your first concerto at college.” Rather than the blended tone that much of the classical repertoire calls for, this music demands throbbing, emotive, swooping strings. Or, as Wilson put it: “Use so much vibrato that people’s family photos will shuffle across the top of their TVs and fall off.”

His conducting work spans much more than his Hollywood musical reconstruction projects. Wilson is a principal conductor with the Royal Northern Sinfonia and has performed or recorded with most of the major ensembles in Britain. And his great passion is for English music: the romanticism of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Delius needs advocates, too, he says. He insists that these two strands of his career are of equivalent importance. “I make no separation between my activities conducting classical music and [film scores]. They’re just all different rooms in the same house.” 

The John Wilson Orchestra’s “Gershwin in Hollywood” (Warner Classics) is out now

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser